When Robin inherited Sansaw Estate in the spring of 1974, it looked very different to what it does today.
It was a daunting sight for even the most formidable of people, let alone someone who was 24 and fresh out of the Army.
“The houses and cottages were in a really bad state,” he explains. “There was a major issue of elderly people living in sub-standard accommodation and we had to do something about it very quickly.”
The estate’s demise was in part because of the war.
“When people returned from war there was very much a sigh of relief with everyone saying ‘let’s enjoy life a bit’.
“There hadn’t been the necessary levels of reinvestment needed to sustain the estate, but management was also an issue. Nothing had been done in the woods since before the war.
“My father had died five or six years before and I came back because my mother died. We had an elderly agent and an elderly trustee and Sansaw just needed some energy, care and attention.”
After a year at Shropshire Farm Institute in 1973, in which he returned with “a bit more nous”, Robin decided to take three tenanted farms back in-hand and started reinvesting in both the residential and commercial properties.
“I made a huge number of mistakes but, more by luck than good judgment, we began to see improvements,” he smiles, no doubt under-cooking the reality. For it is down to Robin’s vision that Sansaw has become what it is today.
“In those days no one wanted to rent, so rents were incredibly low and the cottages themselves were worthless,” he recalls.
“But we needed to take a 40-year view rather than a year-by-year approach. We wanted a really good infrastructure. We wanted to diversify and we wanted to make the most of what we had on the estate.”
One of the diversification projects was transforming rundown stables into a commercial proposition.
“In 1978 there was nothing commercial here at all,” Robin explains as we sit in The Stables office block.
“Hardwick Stables was run down – in fact, there were pigs where the dentist is now. We had a horse enterprise which was going nowhere so we cleared everything out and applied for an industrial buildings allowance.”
That grant enabled Sansaw to redevelop the site and soon it boasted a food manufacturer, a steel farbricator, someone who made board games and a saddler.
“We kept up this programme of reinvestment throughout the late ‘70s and through the ‘80s. The housing market picked up and then the Thatcher government introduced the 1988 Housing Act which made a massive difference. It meant you could have an assured shorthold tenancy which enabled us to charge a market rent and provide fixed terms.”
Alongside the upgrade of rental and commercial properties, the farm horticultural development scheme saw improvements to fencing and ditches.
“Essentially it allowed us to get on with the job of tarting things up,” Robin remembered. “Some of these jobs hadn’t been done for decades so it was long overdue.”
When James returned to Sansaw from his own stint in the Army, as well as a degree in land management at Reading, he inherited a very different Sansaw.
“The estate hasn’t changed really,” Robin points out. “We are still involved in the same three enterprises – milking, commercial and residential – just on a bigger scale.
“I very much dovetailed with James when he returned to Sansaw. James has learned by the process of osmosis and has a true understanding of everything that goes on here. He grew up at Sansaw and would have known every field and every cottage. I’d been in every field and cottage, too, but I wasn’t schooled on how it worked.”
In the office every day, Robin’s experience is still invaluable. He stills holds Non Executive Directorships with the housing corporation as chairman of its finance audit committee, responsible for a budget of £1bn. And he’s still vice chair of the Rural Development Commission, receiving a CBE for services to the rural economy.
“There were various skills I picked up from my time in the Army: managing people, getting organised and probably the ability to employ a bit of logic,” he says.
“I’m still involved today and am very visible round the estate as well as the local community. The longer you’re here the more important community is. I go to all the management meetings and feed in particularly if there is any history required.”
Away from the estate, his passions are chiefly riding horses and travelling. Indeed they often go hand in hand.
“I’m off to Columbia in March with four friends and then off to Namibia in June with the family to ride horses,” he reveals, his eyes lighting up.